The secretive entrepreneur informed suppliers this week that he has bought Ayrshire-based chain Original Shoe Company for an undisclosed sum. The retailer, which last year received a£2 million cash injection from Aberdeen Murray Johnstone Private Equity, sells fashion and footwear brands such as Timberland, Puma and Nike. It was founded by executive chairman David Hammond in 1991.
Original Shoe Company stores, which are located on high streets, are too small to be converted to Sports World outlets, which have an average footprint of about 10,000 sq ft (930 sq m). The acquisition gives Ashley access to a new market and several non-sports-inspired fashion brands, such as Chilli Pepper, Sonneti and Firetrap.
Ashley has already acquired smaller sports retailers Gilesports and Hargreaves this year. It is thought he will use outlets from those acquisitions to launch a surfwear chain called Alive.
Ashley's category-killing Sports World chain, which has felled smaller competitors with its aggressive pricing strategy on top brand names, has now taken the fight online.
The site, www.sports-world.com, offers up to 70 per cent off sports kit, footwear and fashion from brands such as Reebok, Lonsdale and Dunlop. It is still at a trial stage, with many lines unavailable.
The launch will be a blow to struggling rival JJB, which unveiled a transactional web site last year. The online fashion and footwear market is worth£3.5 billion, according to industry internet specialist IMRG.
George Wallace, chief executive of retail consultancy Management Horizons, said both the online venture and Original Shoe Company acquisition are good moves for Sports World as the UK sportswear retail market reaches capacity. He said: 'It's showing commercial flexibility. Sports World is the most nimble player in the market. It comes down to management; the relationship with its suppliers is strong.' He added that Sports World reaps high margins from its own brands such as Donnay.
Sports World International, which also operates London store Lillywhites, last year overtook JJB Sports as the UK's biggest sports retailer. It posted sales of£905 million in the year to April 24 last year, with pre-tax profits of£74.5 million.
Ashley was unavailable for comment.